The Incarceration Proclamation

Sean Lynch
Faculty Instructor: Sophie Bell

Although freedom is a founding principle of the United States since the beginning of America’s history this most basic right has not been afforded to African Americans. The experience of blacks in America is the opposite of freedom. Fortunately the situation of African Americans has improved dramatically, but it is still far from ideal, and in many ways blacks are still being mistreated by the American government. One way this is done is through a racist criminal-justice system which targets Black Americans, and seems to favor White Americans. The racism in the criminal-justice system is not just an example of how America’s government is still racist, but rather it is a scourge on America’s society, that until resolved will continue to affect every single American.

Some believe that there are other explanations for discrimination in the criminal-justice system. Firstly, statistics seem to indicate racism in America’s criminal-justice system. Blacks account for 37 percent of America’s prison population, yet they only account for 13 percent of America’s total population. Whites on the other hand are 40 percent of America’s prison population, but they constitute 72.3 percent of America’s population. These absurdly out of proportion numbers seem to indicate discriminatory practices, but there are those who disagree. Conservative political commentator Heather MacDonald in her article “Is the Criminal-Justice System Racist?” claims that the reason for higher black incarceration rates is simply due to the fact that blacks commit more crimes than their white counterparts. MacDonald claims “The black incarceration rate is overwhelmingly a function of black crime.” According to  MacDonald, “In 2005, the homicide rate of blacks was over seven times higher than that of whites and Hispanics combined…In 2006, the black arrest rate for most crimes was two to nearly three times blacks’ representation in the population.” Given these statistics it looks as though blacks are more prone to crime than whites are, and therefore this justifies why they form such a large segment of the prison population. This would thus mean that the criminal-justice system is not inherently racist, but rather that black crime rates are a result of larger issues within the African American community.

This answer prompts another question. Why do blacks as a whole commit more crimes than whites? Surely it cannot be a coincidence that the people who for the first one hundred years of America’s history were property, and for the one hundred years after that did not have the rights guaranteed by the Constitution happen to commit more crimes. Also it certainly cannot be coincidental that the group who benefited from the exploitation of blacks happens to commit fewer crimes than their numbers would suggest. What is the reason then for the high rate of crime amongst African Americans? The high rate of crime committed by blacks is part of a cycle in which committing a crime that results in prison time makes it very difficult to become a productive member of society. Not because of the individuals themselves, but rather due to society itself. Society stigmatizes criminals as a whole, but black ex-convicts are not surprisingly treated worse than white ex-convicts. Distinguished Loyola University law professor Bill Quigley discusses this fact in his article “Fourteen Examples of Racism in the Criminal Justice System.” Quigley states, “17% of white job applicants with criminal records received call backs from employers while only 5% of black job applicants with criminal records received call backs. Race is so prominent in that study that whites with criminal records actually received better treatment than blacks without criminal records.” This mistreatment leads many blacks to commit crimes again, and this will most likely lead to them returning to prison. After being released from prison an ex-convict has approximately a fifty percent chance of returning within three years, so people who go to prison are almost forced into a cycle of re-incarceration. This explains why blacks commit crimes at such a higher rate than whites. It seems that crimes are often committed by ex-convicts, and since blacks form such a large share of ex-convicts, they will commit more crimes than their numbers in society would suggest.

This explains why blacks are such a large percentage of the prison population, but it does not explain how blacks came to be such a large percentage of the prison population. The reason is quite simple; understanding it requires looking at sentencing practices. Heather MacDonald writes in article that “A 1994 Justice Department survey of felony cases from the nation’s 75 largest urban areas found that blacks actually have a lower chance of prosecution following a felony than whites did.” This is because most cases are plea bargained; usually a defendant will plead guilty as opposed to going to trial. In some cases these people are innocent, and yet they still plead guilty. Why? Bill Quigley explains “As one young man told me recently, ‘Who wouldn’t rather do three years for a crime they didn’t commit than risk twenty-five years for a crime they didn’t do.”  So people who are arrested and as we have already they are disproportionately black will “cop a deal.” When this occurs for the first time both innocent and guilty people probably figure that they will do their time, and then move on with their lives. However as we have seen this is unlikely. Just like that, every-day more and more people without knowing it become positioned to live the majority of their lives locked in a cage.

One question still must be answered; so far all this information has explained is how the criminal-justice system forever claims the lives of those who come into its grasp. Yet, how this huge number of African Americans came to enter the criminal-justice system has not been explained. To understand, we need to look at policing practices Blacks often experience racism, often times literally, at the hands of the police. Police presence is higher in black neighborhoods, due to the higher rates of crime and policies of racial profiling. Instead of this helping the black community it instead contributes to this vicious circle of arrest, incarceration, re-arrest, re-incarceration that seems to never end. Quigley focuses on this point in his article writing, “In New York City, where people of color make up about half of the population, 80% of NYPD stops were of blacks and Latinos. When whites were stopped, only 8% were frisked. When blacks and Latinos are stopped 85% were frisked according to information provided by the NYPD.” This is true from coast to coast. In a California study, the ACLU found blacks are three times more likely to be stopped than whites. This explains why While African Americans comprise 13% of the US population and 14% of monthly drug users they are 37% of the people arrested for drug offenses.  This is the most crucial factor in understanding the criminal justice system. Police come into contact with black people more frequently, and once arrested, the majority of blacks will accept a plea bargain rather than go to trial. Once this happens it is almost impossible not to become one of the millions of black men rotating in and out of jail and ultimately forced into a life of crime.

Given the unjust nature of the criminal-justice system it is shocking to see that one part of this system is growing. Prisons, particularly the number of people in them are skyrocketing. Political activist Angela Davis discusses this in her article “Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex.” Davis writes “Three decades ago, the imprisoned population was approximately one eighth its current size.” The size of the prison population is skyrocketing and since such a high percentage of the prison population is black, more and more African Americans are being put behind bars than ever before. What is the reason for this? Why are so many Americans being incarcerated? The reason is that with the growing number of prisons and prisoners, the prison industry has become a profitable business venture. The government is now privatizing many aspects of the prison system. The two largest prison companies in the United States are the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation (WCC). Both of these corporations are generating large profits. According to Davis “Between 1996 and 1997, CCA’s revenues increased by 58 percent, from $293 million to $462 million. Its net profit grew from $30.9 million to $53.9 million. WCC raised its revenues from $138 million in 1996 to $210 million in 1997.” Companies do not only profit from the building and maintaining of prisons, one of the other areas for profit in America’s prison system is in the prisoners themselves. There are roughly two million Americans currently incarcerated, and this large group is viewed as a cheap workforce by companies. Some of the companies that are alleged use the services provided by prison labor are IBM, Motorola, Compaq, Texas Instruments, Honeywell, Microsoft, and Boeing to name a few. Prisons are becoming privatized and they have the power of corporations behind them. In the last thirty years the prison population has skyrocketed and a huge percentage of that population is African American.

The racism of the criminal-justice system does not stop with incarcerating millions of everyday black men. Historically, the system has also targeted influential Black Americans. How racist America’s criminal-justice system can be is at times is truly abhorrent. University of Georgia Law professor Donald E. Wilkes, Jr. discusses in his article “Unforgiveable Racism: Black Men, Criminal Justice” how the government essentially harassed Muhammad Ali and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Wilkes discusses the methods the FBI and Army intelligence used to compile damning evidence of criminal activity by on Muhammad Ali. Ultimately Ali was sentenced to five years imprisonment on false charges of draft evasion. Ali won his appeal, but nevertheless the fact that he was put in jail because he was a symbol of empowerment to the black community is truly shameful. The government’s harassment of Martin Luther King is even more despicable. Wilkes writes “The FBI had a massive program that begun in the early 1960s. Its main goal was to use its law enforcement powers to hobble Dr. King’s civil rights efforts and to destroy his reputation is well-document in government reports.” Also on the surveillance of Dr. King Wilkes writes “From December 1963 until his death in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was the target of an intensive campaign by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to ‘neutralize’ him as an effective civil rights leader.” These cases show us the range of ways the criminal-justice system has been used to target African Americans.

Perhaps the most damning statistic about the racism that exists pertaining to the criminal-justice system is the fact that one in three black men will serve time in prison at some point during their lives. This statistic was the most shocking one to me personally. It made me think about my two brothers. If we were black it is almost a guarantee than one of us would end up in prison. This is why the racism that exists in the criminal justice system is not a political issue, or simply a matter of fixing the criminal-justice system. Instead it is a societal issue that until it is resolved will continue to bring shame to what I entirely believe is the greatest nation on planet earth.

Works Cited

MacDonald, Heather. “Is the Criminal-Justice System Racist?” City Journal Spring 2008.Web.

Quigley, Bill. “Fourteen Examples of Racism in Criminal Justice System” The Huffington Post 26 July 2010: Web.

Wilkes, Jr. Donald E. “Unforgivable Racism: Black Men, Criminal Justice” Published in Res Ispa p.1 Spring 2007.

Davis, Angela. “Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex” Color Lines 10 September 1998. Web.